As a collector of pin-up art, and the wife of a beer writer, I am probably more exposed to, and less bothered by, cheeky and puerile beer labels and tap handles than other women. I don’t know if beer labels with cute (hot) cartoon babes actually sell more beer – that would be kind of a sad thing, actually – but they certainly are out there. Here in Ontario, we’re all familiar with Niagara Brewery’s Niagara’s Best Blonde, with the 40s era bombshell on the label. She is not scantily clad, mind you, in fact she’s downright wholesome, but I can see where some women would take issue with an image of a woman being used to sell and promote beer.
Of course, busty women have been a marketing default for beer companies for years, and it’s only lately, with the rising popularity of craft beer, that mainstream brewers have changed gears to be more inclusive of women, portraying them more as beer consumers and less as a set of tits in a bikini top, emerging from a lake to bring the man in the ad a crisp, cold one.
Oddly enough, the “sexy-making” in the beer industry has seemed to revert back to the little guy, with craft brewers, especially in the UK, using sexual imagery and innuendo to gain attention for their products in a market that is becoming ever more saturated with competition.
UK beer blogger Melissa Cole wrote a piece back in August about pump clips (tap handles) and bottle labels that include offensive sexual imagery, often of buxom-busted women or allusions to sexual play (one label, for a beer called Slap and Stickle, depicts a woman being spanked). Many of these labels are just badly designed overall, with poor word play, horrible artwork, and sexual innuendo that would be typical of junior high boys (cue the Beavis and Butthead laughter), or old Benny Hill episodes. They don’t hurt anything per se – Cole is clear that she’s not saying that they incite men to rape – but they’re condescending, more than a little inappropriate, and do little to promote the beer to anyone who is not a bonehead. In essence, they’re no better than those mid-80s mainstream beer ads in terms of treating women both as human beings and potential beer drinkers/customers.
Maybe because we still see less of that type of marketing on this side of the pond, or maybe because I actually think some of the pin-up art used by beer labels is well-executed, my attention in pubs and restaurants is not really on the products and the depiction of (cartoon) women, but how businesses are treating the real women they hire to work there.
Let me be clear that I believe that women have the right to dress in a “sexy” (ewww, how I hate that word) manner if they choose to do so. Even if the intention behind those clothing choices is to be provocative and manipulate male customers in order to earn more tips. It’s her body and she has the right to cover it as she pleases. But I also believe that a woman has the right to cover her body with a polo shirt and pants if that’s what she’s comfortable with.
Basically, I am bothered by what is a really horrible double-standard for servers in many mainstream pubs and restaurants.
So many places these days, from chain pubs and sports bars, to more upscale-oriented chains like Earl’s and Joey, force their female floor staff to wear a certain type of uniform (and let us be clear – it’s a “sexy” uniform) while male staff are permitted to wear trousers and a polo shirt. Sure, the upscale-oriented places try to be vaguely more “classy” (dresses are usually black and stop just above the knee – as opposed to a kilt that just grazes the buttocks) but the tops are almost always low cut, and the women are always in skirts.
At one Toronto restaurant, an open-backed staircase makes for some surprising views in a few specific seats underneath it, as female servers regularly go up and down the stairs in short skirts. Many servers have figured out the situation and wear black tights or even cycling shorts under their uniforms, but for those not in the know – not to mention customers in short skirts – they’re unwittingly forced to share more of their personal bits with the people seated beneath those stairs than they might realize. (And in an era where it’s perfectly legal for someone to post any photos they might take at that vantage point on the internet, something that all women need to be aware of.)
After attending a beer event at another Toronto chain, I got into a debate on Twitter with a representative of the restaurant who insisted that female staff can wear what they want while working on the floor. They must share a common brain, then, or perhaps they all call each other ahead of time, because the afternoon I was there, every female server was wearing a (black) super-low-cut top, a short skirt and teeteringly high heels. The guys, they were in trousers and, in one case, Converse runners.
At a family-oriented sports bar chain in my neighbourhood, we observed one female server constantly pulling at the hem of her too-short skirt as she made her way around the room. We questioned a male server who was wearing the typical branded polo shirt and black pants who told us that, as decided by head office, the female servers were required to wear these uniforms and could be fired if they did not.
And of course, let’s not leave out the many chain pubs where female servers have to work the floor in ass-grabbers (super short kilts) while their male colleagues wear – you guessed it – a polo shirt and black trousers.
This sexist and annoying double-standard is doubly sexist and annoying when you look at the reasons for these dress codes in the first place. Particularly in pubs, the theory is that male customers will outnumber females. And if you can make that man’s experience in your establishment more enjoyable by providing him with a pretty girl to bring him his beer, he’ll feel better about himself – more manly, more virile, more powerful – and will stick around longer, buy more beer and ultimately, spend more money. In essence, the pub and mainstream restaurant industry is tarting up young women and sending them out as decoys in order to extract money from suckers.
On one hand, you can’t blame a restaurateur for reeling in a mark. Certainly, the girls in the low cut tops benefit as well, in the form of higher tips. But how about the fact that after a few drinks, many men can lose sight of appropriate boundaries and get a little touchy-feely? Those wee kilts got called ass-grabbers for a reason, and when a female server is carrying a full tray of drinks, keeping wandering hands from reaching up under her skirt is near impossible. Calling out the customer is usually discouraged, and young women are expected to accept that this type of harassment and assault is part of their job description.
The most offensive of all is the US chain The Tilted Kilt, coming soon to Toronto. To work here, potential servers must attend a “casting call”; that’s right, this restaurant gets around those pesky human rights requirements regarding appearance by considering themselves a place of entertainment as opposed to a restaurant, and so things like skill don’t even come into play. While male servers wear a kilt, it is long and black, paired with a black t-shirt; female servers wear the ass-grabber along with a belly-baring top. And uniforms only come up to a certain size, so fat girls – or, you know, normal-sized girls – need not apply. Human rights violation?? Nope, because they’re “casting” as opposed to hiring, standard human rights laws don’t apply.
What all of these chains seem to be missing is the very obvious fact that they’re turning away a whole other demographic of customer – 52% of the population, in fact.
Formerly the most egregious of the “breastaurant” chains, Hooters has seen its sales figures plummet, and has figured out that it needs to attract more female customers. Of course, in its typical sexist way, Hooters plans to do this not by changing the offensive uniforms of the female wait staff, but by adding menu items that are more likely to appeal to women. Because more salads is definitely going to help me overlook the fact that my server is being sexually harassed by the guy at the next table over. Yay, lettuce!
Why is it that none of these places get that they’re offending women and forcing us to take our money elsewhere? In her book The End of Men, author Hanna Rosin predicts a “coming gender apocalypse”. Women now earn more university degrees than men, and while we still don’t make as much money as men for the same job, the gap is closing. Middle class men are also working less; traditionally male jobs are disappearing, and it seems that many men have just stopped looking.
All of this means that men will soon be knocked down from their “breadwinner” pedestal, and will ultimately have less disposable income to spend on frivolities like an evening in a bar with scantily-clad waitresses.
What this boils down to is that restaurants like Hooters and the Tilted Kilt, and even the classier mid-range chain restaurants, will soon go the way of the dinosaur unless they make some genuine (and informed) efforts at attracting – and keeping – female customers. And it will take more than a nice salad.
As a woman, when I’m eating out, my money is going to restaurants that treat their servers with respect. This specifically means restaurants where female servers can either wear what they want, where uniforms are the same for both genders, or where uniforms are respectful and well thought-out while being gender-specific (locally, the Oliver and Bonacini chain does a great job of this; the uniforms at Bannock – jeans and t-shirts – are stylish and appropriate). This isn’t because I’m jealous of the hot young bodies, or because I’m a prude, but because I don’t feel that other women should have to be treated like pieces of meat so that I (or anyone else) can have a beer and some nachos.
As well, I prefer to give my money to establishments that don’t play to the lowest common denominator of “hehhehehheh… boobies.” I’m not interested in eating out next to boneheads, and a server in a short kilt is a clear message, before I even sit down, that this is not the type of clientele I’d like to mix with.
The beer industry, as well as other industries related to it, such as pubs and sports bars, needs to grab a clue. By making their products and establishments female-friendly, breweries and related restaurants could be attracting a whole new clientele. The only reason women aren’t buying beer and hanging out in pubs is that the current marketing scheme of tacky labels, sexist ads, and horrifically demeaning server uniforms makes us feel resoundingly uncomfortable.
We don’t need special salads or pink beer. We just need to not feel objectified or condescended to. Being able to eat a burger without worrying that the server is getting groped by the drunk at the next table helps a lot too.